The vestibular system detects movement of the head and the pull of gravity. The sensory information is received through the inner ear and then interpreted in the brain. This system governs your balance and tells you whether you are right side up or upside down. Children who have under-responsive vestibular systems seem to want to be constantly on the move, spinning, jumping and running. Children who have over-responsive vestibular systems are scared of swings, elevators, movement, maybe a baby cries when you lay them down.
Many of you know that OT’s use a lot of swinging in therapy and sometimes parents will ask me “Why are you swinging my kid?” I have to explain to them that linear movement (back and forth in a straight line) is calming and can actively open up the vestibular system by encouraging movement of the fluid in your semicircular canals. This in turn can help improve speech, language, balance, coordination, attention, auditory processing and more. Rotary movement (moving in a circle) can be alerting to most children but can be beneficial for certain kids. Make sure you always spin in one direction and then in the other direction so as to balance out the vestibular system. When you are swinging a child- please make sure you have been directed by your OT or another trained specialist and that you are always watching your child’s face for clues of dizziness, feeling sick or uncomfortable. You do not want to over stimulate your child so if they become spaced out, looking far away and not attending, if their eyes are moving really fast (post rotary nystagmus is appropriate in small amounts after spinning but should quickly subside) or if they are getting more hyper and that is not what you are trying to achieve, then stop the rotary movement and slow them down to a linear movement.
More than One Direction
When swinging a child, I do not only swing them in one direction. I change it up, side to side, front to back, circle around (if appropriate) have them sit, then stand, then lay on their stomachs for different head positions and different input to that vestibular system. I also have them sing, count, toss bean bags to a bucket while swinging to work on multitasking, eye-hand coordination etc.
Part of a Larger Obstacle Course
I also typically use swinging as a part of a larger obstacle course so they may climb onto a platform swing, then frog jump over to the trampoline, jump 10 times, crash to crash pad, crawl through the tunnel and then back to the platform swing. This just gave them several types of sensory input that will help them regulate and organize their system.
Sometimes I think that swinging will calm a child and in turn it makes them more excited and so I need to change my activity to adjust to the child’s needs. Other times, I want a child to learn how to tolerate movement because they are so hypersensitive they scream or cry or try to get off any type of swing. I may have them climb on and just sit on the platform swing. I may have them sit and complete a puzzle on the swing and while distracted VERY gently move the swing but have them in my lap giving them deep pressure to help provide some body awareness to them. Then I let them get off the swing and maybe pick them up, give them a hug and gently rock them side to side. This is still giving them vestibular input, but can be a safer method for those hypersensitive children. Sometimes it takes weeks to have a child tolerate swinging.
If you do not have a platform swing, you can use a rocking chair for linear movement, a computer chair for rotary movement (spinning in both directions and not too much), a park swing or you can look into ordering the Rainy Day Indoor Playground Swing. This indoor swing hangs from the doorway and is great for when the weather outside is rainy, snowy or too cold.